Who Leads Your Organization Towards Workplace Safety and Respectful Behavior?

A very typical thing happened to me recently when my wife and I were on a road trip across the western provinces along with our 9-year old golden retriever, Jason. You know how it is….you stop somewhere on your holiday travels and bump into someone and get chatting and then find out that you have all sorts of things in common, similar interests and perhaps even people that you know.

We were in Regina, Saskatchewan, having dinner in a downtown restaurant when we began a conversation with the couple who were dining at the table adjacent to us.The conversation that followed for the remainder of the evening with this couple (whom I will call Susan and Steven) provides the inspiration for this post.

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Susan’s story

The first part of the conversation could have been titled, “Susan’s Story – This can’t possibly be true!” and profiles what Susan shared with us. She told us that she worked in the healthcare field as a nurse at a downtown walk-in clinic of a large Canadian city.

This was a dream job for her.

She told us that she had always wanted to be in a profession where she could make a difference in people’s lives and at the clinic, Susan felt that she was doing just that each and every day. She dealt with disadvantaged youth and member’s of the downtown’s vulnerable population who looked to the clinic to provide stability in their lives as well as medical treatment.

Susan had been exposed to the concept of working in the ‘community’ during her RN training and had known straight away that this was what she was meant to do. Where she lived, the opportunity to move into ‘community’ work would require her to be extremely patient as positions did not become available very often. They were sought after appointments which people tended to hold onto with a firm grip.

Being resourceful and proactive, Susan went knocking on doors until she found the job she was looking for: a downtown clinic whose entire philosophy was built around the premise of being there for those who need help the most.

As Susan spoke about her work, you could feel the passion she felt for her job. It was in her eyes, and in the way she spoke about the various clients whom she met with and treated. She said several times that she was doing exactly what she was meant to be doing.

That was the positive side of what Susan spoke about.

Susan’s story – the other side of happy

We had already spoken about my world of workplace safety,and Susan definitely had something to say about her workplace from that perspective.

Susan told me that she had felt safe at work but due to a couple of changes that occurred recently, the feeling of safety now relied primarily on the relationship which she developed with her patients.

There had been a security guard posted at the clinic previously but that had recently changed. The staff had been told that the Board of Governors who oversaw the running of the clinic had conducted a random survey of the community – and the response was that the sight of a uniformed security guard put people off coming to the clinic and that was the reason that the guard had now been removed. There had been no discussion with the staff about this decision. It impacted Susan and her colleague’s feeling of security immediately.

In addition, there had been signs in the waiting area that spoke about the fact that any client who behaved inappropriately and/or aggressively would be asked to leave immediately and their future access to service denied. These signs were removed at the same time that the security guard disappeared.

Susan talked about these significant changes with her supervisor and pointed out the fact that the security guard had often intervened in disruptive situations and facilitated the patient (or other persons) leaving the clinic. Susan had been told by her supervisor that this would now be the responsibility of the doctor or nurse who was dealing with the person.

Susan told us that she worked mainly the afternoon shift and the security guard had provided a feeling of safety. A feeling that someone was watching over her (and the other staff members) as they did their work.

The guard would also chaperone staff as they walked to their cars, which were located in a dimly lit car park at the rear of the clinic. This car-park was accessible by everyone in the community and had been given the nickname of “The Playground” due to the ‘activities’ which it played host to in the evening.

When are we being a bother?

With the guard now gone, Susan said that she had sometimes asked the lone building service worker to walk her to her car but the worker was usually busy doing their own work and Susan did not like to continually keep asking. She felt that she was bothering them and also interrupting their work as well.

Susan mentioned that there were supposed to be two nurses working at all times until 2100hrs but that her colleague had recently been given permission to change her shift and now left at 2000hrs, leaving Susan working on her own for that last hour.

I asked Susan about the existence of a policy regarding staff safety and dealing with members of the public under these circumstances at her workplace.

She said that Workplace Violent Incident Report Forms had been introduced two years ago but the staff was also told (via an email which apparently had come from the Chairman of the Board at the time) that they were only to be completed when someone was injured to the point of requiring treatment and/or time away from work. Undaunted by this, Susan told us that she had been encouraging her colleagues to complete these report forms each time there was an incident (regardless of whether someone had been hurt). However, although the report forms had been submitted she had no idea what happened to them after they had been given to her supervisor.

What about a risk assessment?

I asked Susan whether she was aware if a Risk Assessment had been conducted before or after the change regarding the security guard situation…or at any time?

Susan said that she had been told by her supervisor two months’ prior that the provincial body responsible for OH&S compliance in the province had indeed turned up to do a safety audit of the clinic. Her supervisor proudly stated to Susan that the clinic had passed with flying colors! Susan was rolling her eyes as she recalled how proud her supervisor sounded.

As I sat in the restaurant listening to Susan talk about here workplace, I felt a growing sense of frustration at her situation. She told me later that hearing herself talk about the situation at work to a stranger actually helped her to realize how bad things had become.

I suggested that perhaps she volunteer for the Occupational Health & Safety Committee. She laughed and said that she had already done that and was told by her supervisor that she wasn’t needed on the committee…‘but thank you for volunteering!’ Susan told us that she has never seen minutes from the Safety Committee meetings and her colleague, who was on the committee, spoke about ‘what an absolute waste of time going to the meetings’ was and that oftentimes, so few people showed up that the meeting was immediately abandoned and the next month’s date selected…….and so on……

I suggested quietly that it might even take someone getting seriously hurt (or worse) for things to change at the clinic.

Susan paused and told me a story about how a nurse at the clinic had been locked in a room by a patient and threatened with a knife. They also had a gun. After a few minutes the door opened and the patient left the clinic as though nothing had happened.

It’s a really sad play-on-words since following that incident, nothing had happened. No, debrief. No official communication. No changes at all.

The evening ended with Susan saying that she was returning to work with a new found determination to speak about the staff safety issues and to initiate positive change.

The conversation encouraged me to reflect on things as well.

Champions of Safety

Here was a healthcare setting (an industry often seen as the birthplace of Workplace Violence prevention best practices) where staff safety had apparently fallen far from the radar of those whose responsibility it was to ensure that safety in the first place.

‘Champions of Safety’ are critical for every organization.

Unfortunately, this clinic sounded like a prime example of what happens in workplaces where that champion is busy elsewhere…..or just not there in the first place!

I have always viewed Occupational Health & Safety Committees as the primary fuel that can move organizations forward to a place of world class safety.

This clinic appears to run the legal obligation to have a committee like a chore that you just don’t want to do…. putting it off as long as possible and then hoping that no-one shows up when the meeting is eventually scheduled so that everyone else can be blamed for why the committee doesn’t work.

Sound familiar?

Here is a helpful post that I wrote last year that can help you if you find your workplace sounding like Susan’s.

Do you remember Steven?

He is Susan’s partner who was there also in that Regina restaurant.

Well, he had an incredible safety culture story to share as well….but that is for another time.